In Memoriam: Barbara Kent, 103, Ribbon of Dreams

Barbara Kent, December 16, 1907 – October 13, 2011

Barbara Kent: “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but being an actress was not it.”

The Sound of Silence, by Michael Ankerich.

Barbara Kent, b. Barbara Cloutman, who passed away a few weeks ago, was one of the last surviving movie stars—Mickey Rooney, ailing and frail might be the last—who worked in the golden era of silent movies and then made the transition to sound.

She was a reluctant actress, a star whose light shined quite briefly, and then with exquisite sanity, she stepped out of the limelight and into the embrace of private life and marriage.

In 1925 Kent won the  Miss Hollywood beauty pageant. Apparently, her parents pushed her to enter the contest. Thus, from the very beginning, Barbara was playing a role she neither sought nor desired. Though she had no acting experience Universal offered the tiny—she was under five feet tall—baby-faced, 17 year-old beauty queen a contract.

In 1926, Kent was cast in ”Flesh and the Devil” (1926) as a young women in love with the dashing John Gilbert who has eyes only for the heartless vamp Greta Garbo. Garbo gets all the loving close-ups, but I’ve always felt that Kent was far more attractive and desirable than the remote and narcissistic Garbo.

Kent starred opposite Oliver Hardy, in  “No Man’s Law”, (1927). In this film she’s seen swimming in the nude, but in fact she was wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. This was something of a minor scandal but a little scandal has never hurt the career of a Hollywood ingenue.

Barbara Kent in “Lonesome,” 1928.

My very favorite Kent film is “Lonesome” (1928), a near-masterpiece set in Coney Island, directed by Paul Fejos. Kent plays Mary, a switchboard operator who meets Jim (Glenn Tryon), a factory worker, in Coney Island. They spend the day together, fall in love, and then get separated in the bustling crowd. It’s a simple urban tale, a slice of poetry that’s distinguished by the heart-breaking sincerity of the performances and the director’s keen eye for location and expressive camera movement. Sadly, Universal added three stiff talking scenes to the film in order to show off the new technology of sound. This bone-headed move was all too common as the studios were in a panic about talkies.

Barbara Kent and Harold Lloyd in “Welcome Danger” 1929, her first movie of the sound era.

After taking voice lessons Kent made the switch to talkies. She starred opposite the great Harold Lloyd—he first laid eyes on her at Hearst’s San Simeon castle—in his first sound film, “Welcome Danger” (1929). Kent plays Lloyd’s love interest, though she’s dressed as a man when they first meet.

In “Feet First,” (1930) Lloyd plays a shoe salesman who believes that Kent is the boss’s daughter and goes to lunatic lengths to impress her. Lloyd was a great spotter of talent. That he used Barbara in two pictures back to back is evidence of Kent’s promise as a star.

In both films Kent is charming, feisty and adorably mischievous. She’s the all-American girl every American boy aspires to marry.

Kent married MGM executive turned agent, Harry Edington in 1932 and except for a few more film roles, she retired to private life. They remained together until Edington’s death in 1949. Kent married Jack Monroe, an engineer, in 1954. Monroe died in 1998. Towards the end of her life, Kent lived in Palm Desert, California.

Kent granted few interviews and frequently denied that she was ever a movie star.

Make no mistake about it, Kent is a Hollywood success story. She survived the grinding wheels of stardom.

Later in life Kent observed:

“It saddened me when I watched the likes of Bette Davis and Anita Page crawling across the screen looking like a cross between Baby Jane Hudson and a tired, chipped old porcelain dolly. I am a firm believer in the Mary Pickford school, where one should quit whilst still good-looking and on top.”

An active woman, Barbara Kent piloted light aircraft until her 85th birthday, and played golf well into her mid-90s.

It is odd, but I suddenly realize how deeply attached I am to the stars of the silent screen. Their images have nourished me, their films taught and continue to teach me my craft as a screenwriter. I have internalized their dramatic emotional lives, and in some cases I have come to understand—however imperfectly—their real lives which were, quite frequently, even more tumultuous than their fictional lives.

Now, I am witness to the final heart beats of that remarkable generation. Movies are ribbons of dreams, and this dream, the age of silent movies, when the visual language of movies was invented and perfected, is coming to an end.

RIP, Barbara Kent.

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12 Comments

  1. kgbudge
    Posted October 28, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    For me, one of the painful parts of watching older movies is wondering why we don’t have actors like that today.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted October 28, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      kgbudge:

      We actually do have some very fine actors. But the element that’s missing is glamour; and glamour was lost when the US government destroyed the studio system by forcing them to divest the means of distribution, their movie theaters. After that, studios declined and actors were on their own to make fools of themselves in public and become not stars but tedious celebrities.

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted October 29, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

        And in reading this Robert wouldn’t you define “glamour” as 2 faceted- not only the clothes but the “aloofness” – mystery –  is what drove the public clamoring to know more about their idols. 

        Now we seem them in all their “glory” 😉  

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted October 29, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

          Bill:

          Mystery is an essential ingredient for glamour. Thus, all glamour is stripped away when a star sits on the chair next to Jay Leno and yaps away like a moron. Believe me, the same deconstructing of glamour would have happened to Garbo or Bogart or any of the old stars.

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  2. Posted October 28, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    I’ll echo Bill’s comment, Robert — a wonderful and fitting tribute.
     
    Can you imagine being 103 years old? Think of all of the things she witnessed — she was a small girl when World War I was fought. She was a middle-aged woman when Hitler’s armies stormed across Europe. Airplanes and automobiles were “new” when she was born. Talkies, jets, space travel and landing on the moon. She certainly did witness a lot of history in those 103 years!

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted October 28, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Prophet Joe:

      Thanks so much.

      Indeed, what a view Barbara had of the march of time. She was, as they say in the Torah, “abundant in years.”

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  3. Michael G. Ankerich
    Posted October 28, 2011 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    Very nice tribute, Robert. 

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted October 28, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      Michael:

      Oh my gosh, you are my hero. The man who, working against time, tracked down the stars, and set down their memories, thoughts and feelings for posterity.

      Thanks so much for all your hard work.

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  4. Bill Brandt
    Posted October 27, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful and fitting tribute Robert. I would like to think that Barbara, who eschewed Hollywood stardom, would give you a slight smile and nod upon seeing your tribute – wherever she is.

    In reading so many of your wonderful tributes of stars who with time, faded into
    obscurity I have come to think of you as their gatekeeper – one who they would trust to tell their stories. 

    In reading this I was also reminded of Johnny Carson who upon retiring in 1992 – claimed that he would come back and do a special or 2 – just decided to stay out of the limelight and play poker with his friends.  Would you also place Kim Novak in this category? They are few and far between. They all left at the top of their game. 

    Like sports figures who play beyond their  physical prime, it saddening to see a once on top of their game actor or athlete still out in the limelight, for the public to witness their decline. 

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted October 28, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      Bill:

      Thank you for your kind words. Memorials are difficult to write. How much to include, how much to infer, and how to judge the work? Ultimately, it’s a delicate balancing act. I try to be compassionate, honest and fair.

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  5. Barry
    Posted October 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Robert–

    Did you know her…? I know where she lived, and that should have been all right, but was it?

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted October 28, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Barry:

      Alas, I did not know her. But Michael Ankerich (comment above) author of several excellent books on the silent stars did interview Kent.

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2 Trackbacks

  • […] Studio photographers shot millions of stills of contract actors, often with holiday themes. This is a charming Thanksgiving  photo. The actress is Barbara Kent, (b. Barbara Cloutman, 1907- 2011) a popular star in the silent era best known for twice starring opposite Harold Lloyd, “Welcome Danger” (1929), and then “Feet First,” (1930). But her very best role was in a little known but quite wonderful silent film “Lonesome,” (1928). Seraphic Secret wrote a memoriam for this lovely actress when she passed away. You can find it here. […]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  • […] Studio photographers shot millions of stills of contract actors, often with holiday themes. This is a charming Thanksgiving  photo. The actress is Barbara Kent, (b. Barbara Cloutman, 1907- 2011) a popular star in the silent era best known for twice starring opposite Harold Lloyd, “Welcome Danger” (1929), and then “Feet First,” (1930). But her very best role was in a little known but quite wonderful silent film “Lonesome,” (1928). Seraphic Secret wrote a memoriam for this lovely actress when she passed away. You can find it here. […]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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